The discussions in Latin writers as to the origin of the word Argiletum have at least this value, that they imply that the name was first given to some limited spot because of its connection either with beds of clay (argilla), or with the death (letum) of a legendary Argus. The first conjecture is the more plausible, though the second one was adopted by Vergil (Aen. VIII.346), by Martianus Capella in his statement (III.273) that, in pronunciation, the word had the acute, grave, and circumflex accents, and by Martial (i.117: Argi nempe soles subire letum), though Martial in the use of tmesis in perhaps only playing with the word, or possibly wishing to rival the saxo cere comminuit brum of Ennius. These and other etymologies from several ancient authors are conveniently brought together in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.a
But the word, whatever its derivation and whatever the locality to which it was first applied, became the name of a street which started from the Roman Forum, near the temple of Janus (Liv. I.19; Servius on Aen. VII.607), and ran in a northeasterly direction between the Curia and the Basilica Aemilia, and then on to its junction with the Subura (Mart. II.17). Evander in escorting Aeneas about his capital, on the way from the Lupercal to the Tarpeian Rock, points out the grove (nemus) of the Argiletum, but Vergil's description of this promenade (Aen. VIII.307 ff.) was not intended to be a topographical map. The Argiletum was probably connected on the north with the important Vicus Longus and Vicus Patricius, and on the south with the Vicus Sandaliarius, and was absorbed in or skirted the Forum of Nerva. It thus united the heart and great rendezvous of Rome with some of its most populous sections. Two letters from Cicero to Atticus (i.14; xii.32) suggest the value of property on that avenue.
Such a thoroughfare must have been a desirable locality for stores and shops of all kinds, but definite references to such a use of the Argiletum are disappointingly few. Inscriptions are often helpful in locating particular traders and industries, but no known inscription throws any light on the kinds of business done on this street. Literary allusions to the street as a mart are apparently found only in Martial. He says (ii.17) that the Argiletum was besieged by shoemakers (Argique letum multus obridet sutor). Three times (i.2;º i.3; i.117) he connects it with the sale of his own poems, though the merchants Atrectus and Secundus may have been one and the same individual. These three passages appear to be the only foundation for the sweeping generalization which appears in many books on Rome and in p78 editions of Martial, that the Argiletum was the center of the book-trade, a kind of "Pater Noster Row" of Rome.
All that we know is that about 86 A.D. Atrectus and Secundus, or perhaps Atrectus Secundus, sold the epigrams of Martial on the Argiletum. The poet had at least two other publishers, Pollius (I.113) and Tryphon (IV.72), but nothing is known as to their location. One of the three passages (I.2) distinctly implies that books were sold in many parts of the city (urbe tota).
Aulus Gellius twice refers (II.3; V.4) to the sale of books in the Sigillaria (Image Market?), an unknown locality. He also writes (XVIII.4) of having been in different bookstores (apud librarios) on the Vicus Sandaliarius (Sandal St.). Galen asserts (Vol. XIX, p8, Kühn) that most of the Roman bookstores were on this street (ἐν τῷ Σανδαλιαρίῳ καθ’ ὃ δὴ πλεῖστα τῶν ἐν Ῥώμῃ βιβλιοπωλείων ἐστί).
Porphyrio and Pseudo-Acro, in their notes on Horace (Ep. I.20.1), say that books were on sale in front of the temples of Vertumnus and Janus, i.e., in the Vicus Tuscus and inside the Forum. Pseudo-Acro adds that the Sosii, Horace's publishers, had book-stalls at the Rostra. These brothers were probably not that poet's only publishers. The epitaph of P. Cornelius Celadus (CIL, VI, 9515) tells us that near the Porta Trigemina he had been a librarius, i.e., a bookseller or, perhaps, a copyist or amanuensis.
This examination of the available evidence goes to show that the book-trade in Rome was somewhat widely distributed, and that, at least in the second century A.D., it was especially prominent, not in the Argiletum, but in the Vicus Sandaliarius.
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